This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Philadelphia’s Board of Ethics has rejected a complaint filed by several advocacy organizations contending that the William Penn Foundation was lobbying when it financed the hiring of a School District consultant in 2012 and was given access to its work.
The complaint, filed last December, argued that the William Penn Foundation and the Boston Consulting Group, whose services the foundation paid for through a grant to the District, should register as lobbyists.
BCG prepared a report urging school closings, the creation of achievement networks managed by outside entities, the expansion of charter schools, and outsourcing of some unionized work, especially in school maintainance.
The groups filing the complaint argued that the foundation, through its grant, had gained extraordinary access to shape public policy, including access to non-public documents and private time with public officials.
The Ethics Board concluded that the facts "do not demonstrate that BCG was lobbying the School District on behalf of the Foundation." It said the actions of the William Penn Foundation and BCG did not constitute lobbying because the BCG consultants answered to the District’s chief recovery officer, Thomas Knudsen, and the School Reform Commission, not to the foundation, although it said that the agreements for the second and third phases of BCG’s work "create the appearance."
"Neither the City’s lobbying law, nor Board Regulation No. 9, directly addresses the relationship that arises when a private entity provides grant funding to a public enterprise such as the School District," the Board of Ethics concluded. "However, when a private grantor provides a grant at the request of a public entity, we believe that communication between the grantor and public officials regarding the terms of the grant and compliance with those terms, will not, on its own, constitute lobbying."
"We are pleased that the Ethics Board decided to investigate the claims of our clients, because they raise serious questions about the use of private money to gain influence over a public body — here, the School District," said PILCOP executive director Jennifer Clarke.
"Although the board ultimately found that there was not lobbying, this decision was based on oral assurances made during the investigation, not on the public documents which, as the board agreed, gave the appearance that the consultants were working for the Foundation and not for the School District."